The Sacrifice (1986)

*. I want to begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris and Stalker are among my all-time favourite films, though they’re both flawed masterpieces. The thing is, when Tarkovsky is “on” his flaws, which can be substantial, don’t matter. You’re left with the feeling that very few filmmakers are working at the same level.
*. Which brings us to The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last film. It was made in Sweden and very much stands as a sort of homage to Bergman, with the main actor being Bergman veteran Erland Josephson and Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist behind the camera (though it wasn’t shot on Faro, as was apparently often reported). What this means, unfortunately, is that it’s a movie that has a lot to say about Man and God and Love and Death and the End of the World, and says it in a very ponderous way.

*. Look, Tarkovsky is a slow filmmaker. There’s a 45-minute parable here stretched to 142 minutes by way of lots of very long shots and exquisitely composed frames. That’s not the problem. Tarkovsky is also a spiritual guy, so there’s a lot of vague religiosity on display that I didn’t think added up to much. Words like “truth,” “ritual,” “sin,” and “sacrifice” are turned into leitmotifs. But that’s not the problem either.
*. The problem is that these two things are combined, without any great payoff at the end. Here’s Roger Ebert in what was a four-star (his highest rating) review: “The movie is not easy to watch, and it is long to sit through. Yet a certain joy shines through the difficulty. Tarkovsky has obviously cut loose from any thought of entertaining the audience and has determined, in his last testament, to say exactly what he wants, in exactly the style he wants. . . . The Sacrifice is not the sort of movie most people will choose to see, but those with the imagination to risk it may find it rewarding.” Wow. How enticing does that sound?

*. As things proceed we may well think that the presiding spirit is less Bergman than it is Ibsen or Strindberg. What year, nay what century is this? Surely the nineteenth! Is there running water in this house? But no, someone is seen driving a car. And there’s a JVC home stereo (in a wood housing) and television. And as we’re finally told in the film’s final act, the year is 1985. Which is about 100 years later than it looks to be. Or sounds like. It’s a movie that deals with anxiety over nuclear war, but don’t expect to hear Nena belting out “99 Luftbaloons.” This is Tarkovsky, and only Bach is going to do.
*. It also feels like nineteenth-century drama because the interiors all look like stage sets. I mean, there’s an acreage of (mostly empty) floor space not just in the main house but in Maria’s supposedly more downscale cottage. But then the exteriors seem no less staged, as they in fact were. That house, and that tree, planted out in the middle of nowhere are more an art installation than anything that’s part of nature.
*. Staging also informs nearly every shot of the film. This is taken to the point where you know how shots are going to end even as they’re being set up. I’ll give two examples, in one a group of figures walk toward an open doorway. There was a space to the left of the screen that was empty and when the last person entered the frame I said to myself “he has to walk over to the left to fill in that empty space and then stand there to complete the tableau.” And he did.

*. In the second, we see the main character, Alexander (Josephson) standing in front of a dresser with a full length mirror in the door. The door slowly opens, reflecting Alexander in the shot. Again, I said to myself “the shot has to end with the door stopping just at the point where Alexander is framed perfectly in the mirror.” And it did.

*. When your shots become this predictable I think there’s a problem. In a way it’s even worse than a script that you’re always two steps ahead of. It adds an extra level of impatience to one’s experience of a film that is already moving slow enough.
*. Reinforcing the slowness of the proceedings is the photography, which deliberately reduces the amount of colour throughout the central part of the movie. It’s almost like black and white (Nykvist says nearly 60% of the colour was removed). Now Tarkovsky is no stranger to this sort of experimenting with juxtaposing different levels of colour — it plays a big part in Stalker and is used dramatically at the end of Andrei Rublev — but here I had trouble getting the point. Is the middle section of the movie all a dream/nightmare? Maybe.

*. Much of what I’ve said here about the staginess of the compositions, the long takes, the fiddling with colour, and the Bach chorus, could be said of all of Tarkovsky’s work, including some of the best of it. What undercuts it all here is the vagueness of the message, and my sense that what I did understand of that message was something I didn’t like very much.

*. The parable, in outline, has it that a nuclear war is launched and Alexander gets down on his knees and prays that the world can go back to the way it was, and in return he’ll sacrifice everything he loves the most. Then a fellow who studies occult happenings tells Alexander that another good way to save the world might be to sleep with the maid Maria, who is sort of like a good witch. This Alexander does, and things do sort of go back to normal, but Alexander figures he has to keep his part of the bargain with God so he burns his house down.
*. I don’t know where to begin with this. First off, Alexander doesn’t give up all he loves and possesses by burning down his house. I was figuring he’d be sacrificing his son, who’s called Little Man but might as well be Isaac. Also, bargaining with God is a bad look and I don’t think makes for good theology. Then there’s the stuff with Maria. It’s an even worse look for an old guy to figure he can only save the world by sleeping with a woman half his age, and who even uses emotional blackmail (putting a gun literally to his head) to get her to go along. Not even another levitating bout of lovemaking can make this right.
*. In fact, I didn’t like Alexander-as-Christ at all. He’s a combination of the intellectual vice of preferring talk to action wed with the old-person vice of fearing change and wanting everything to magically go back to the way it was before (a golden age, pre-technological, pre-nuclear weapons, when he could still get it up). I didn’t find anything tragic about his ending at all, and didn’t even think the ambulance (which miraculously appears out of nowhere) should have bothered with him. He doesn’t need therapy so much as he needs to be taken to the woodshed.

*. The house burning down is a great image. But then so is Holly Hunter playing a piano on the beach in The Piano, but just as in that case a great image does not a great movie make. Tarkovsky doesn’t have any kind of point here. When he’s at his best, you can feel what he’s saying in a deep way. But I didn’t feel much of anything in The Sacrifice except a sense of frustration and grumpiness with the world. I couldn’t help thinking that Tarkovsky would have been as happy seeing the world burn as watching that house go up in flames. As for the next generation, they can pray to a dead tree. Just keep the faith.

33 thoughts on “The Sacrifice (1986)

  1. Bookstooge

    cut loose from any thought of entertaining the audience

    and when a director thinks he doesn’t have to do that anymore, then he’s lost the whole *&^%$ point of why he’s making movies. He’s nothing but a tinpot tyrant trying to keep the people happy. If he thinks he’s anything else, he’s a delusional jackass who should be taken out behind the woodshed.

    I must say, this sounds atrocious. In a slow, molasses, drown me slowly kind of way.


    A great film, and one that I thought about every day during the pandemic, which ain’t over yet. That middle section is clearly a dream, and the point is that our protagonist would give everything to avoid that nightmare becoming reality. But actually giving everything is a hard sacrifice to make. Look, I get that AT is slow, his films are famously contemplative, but isn’t it OK to tall a story at a meditative pace? Isn’t the hypnotic way with images, sculpting in time, the whole point?

    1. Alex Good Post author

      What sacrifice is he making though? Sleeping with the hired help? He just burns the house down, he doesn’t really lose anything. A guy like him probably wants to start over anyway.

      I love Tarkovsky and his pacing. I’m even with him for long tracking shots looking into a ditch filled with garbage like in Stalker. But this was ponderous.


        You wake up in a ditch filled with garbage every morning, and no amount of mumbled poetry is going to save you. People burn their houses down every day, it’s a common social problem. People walk from one side to another of a drained swimming pool with a lit candle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Just because you live in a bin.

  3. Fraggle

    All the way down the post I was thinking, Booky is going to trash this, and Dix is going to revere it.
    You lost me when the occult student tells Alexander to bonk the maid to make things normal because I couldn’t stop laughing. Anyway I’m with Booky here, the director is a plank.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I’ve got Eddie and Booky spinning around in there now. I told Eddie he’s helping discover the Higgs Bosom. Or a bosun named Higgs. Whichever he finds first. As long as it’s not a boson.

  4. Lashaan Balasingam @ Roars and Echoes

    I really want to check this out but I have Stalker way higher on my must-watch list. I didn’t realize he also did Solaris? I imagine it’s based on the novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem? I read that not too long ago and would love to check out his movie next. Thanks for putting this one on my radar though.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Solaris and Stalker are both masterpieces. And yes, Solaris is based on the Lem novel. Much better than the 2002 Soderbergh/Clooney effort. There’s also a b/w version out there too that I think was done for Russian television. Definitely worth checking out good Tarkovsky, but you do have to be in the right frame of mind and have some time to spend with them.

  5. Bookstooge


    That’s me. I was ringing your doorbell and knocking to see if you were home. Hope I didn’t disturb you…

  6. Bookstooge

    And Sasquatch asked if you could get better internet. He says he’s tired of your slow stuff and trying to download all those pirate movies is getting in the way of the all the rants he wants to post on various social media sites.

    you know, for once I agree with him. Just because he’s a moocher and free loader is no reason for slow internet.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      You don’t fool me. This isn’t early morning, it’s late at night! You’re probably sleeping now, and the sun is coming up!

  7. Bookstooge

    Well, I managed to pack a 45min bin solo into just 15min. Man, I played those bins fast!

    Too bad you didn’t hear it. It was a masterpiece, never to be repeated…


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